What’s that Smell?

Rotten Flesh? Dirty Diapers? No, it’s the Corpse Flower!

Last Tuesday, the National Wildlife Federation team at the National Advocacy Center in D.C. took a mini field trip to the U.S. Botanic Garden to visit the corpse flower, also known as the rotting flesh flower or the putrid diaper flower. The flower’s scientific name, Amorphophallus titanum also known as titum arum, just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

You may ask why we would want to visit a flower that stinks like a rotting corpse? The answer lies in the National Wildlife Federation’s international work which is focused on reducing tropical deforestation, caused by expansion of palm oil and other agricultural commodities, including in Sumatra, Indonesia, the corpse flower’s home. So we wanted to see some of that amazing habitat in the flesh!

An Amazing Flower

The glorious but smelly corpse flower during peak bloom. The inflorescence encompasses nearly the entire plant, from the yellow tip at the top to the stem at the base of the leaf. Photo by Alec Roth
The glorious but smelly corpse flower during peak bloom. Photo by Alec Roth

Despite the stench, the flower is strikingly beautiful and surprisingly large, standing at 7 feet tall. The line of visitors to see the six-year old plant’s first bloom stretched around the greenhouse.

First discovered by scientists in 1878, the corpse flower has only been available for public viewing in the United States a handful of times. It was last displayed at the Botanic Garden in 2013 when over 130,000 people came to view the beautiful bloom and the intriguing malodors it produces.

The corpse flower can take years and even decades to create and store a sufficient amount of energy for such a spectacular bloom. The plant was expected to mature at night, which is quite common, so the Botanic Garden extended their hours to 11 pm. The stink flower, however, bloomed mid-day on Tuesday, drawing thousands of people to the gardens to witness peak stink. The bloom lasts for 24 to 48 hours before the inflorescence, a cluster of multiple flowers that can look like one large flower, collapses. The flower’s raunchy odor originates from the inflorescence which is the largest unbranched inflorescence in the world with hundreds of flowers inside.

The rotten flesh smell does have a greater purpose than entertaining curious humans. The smell, combined with heat generated by inflorescence, attracts pollinators like carrion beetles and flies. The overwhelming odor can attract these insects from long distances, increasing the reproductive range of the plant.

The plant itself is native to the tropical rainforests of Sumatra, Indonesia where it can grow up to 12 feet tall. The rainforests of Sumatra are under severe threat of deforestation as large tracts of land are cleared for palm plantations. The National Wildlife Federation’s international team engages with all sectors across the supply chain to support sustainably produced palm oil that is free from deforestation, peat clearance, and human rights abuses.

Learn MoreLearn more about NWF’s international work and get involved